It is not possible to spend much time in Sydney without coming up against its convict roots; the city was after all built by those men, women and children who found themselves on the wrong side of the law and transported to the other side of the world.
During the 17th & 18th centuries the industrial revolution in Britain, coupled with a dramatic rise in population, had resulted in extreme poverty and with it a huge increase in crime rates. In an attempt to combat the problem more and more crimes became punishable by death culminating with up to 200 capital crimes being on the statute books. These included such things as pick-pocketing more than a shilling, cutting down trees, forgery, arson, piracy, being out at night with a blackened face and unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child.
The situation had got to the point where a public execution became more of an entertainment than a deterrent. An alternative punishment was needed which, coupled with the desperate need for a labour force in the new overseas colonies, lead to the introduction of Transportation. Sentences of 7 years, 14 years or life could be handed down, but the reality was having been deposited in a foreign land thousands of miles from home, it was a life sentence. The courts would pay for your transport out, but it was up to you to find and pay for a way back.
Transportation to the American colonies had been taking place for some time when “The First Fleet” set sail from Portsmouth on the 13th May 1787 bound for Australia. This was made up of 11 ships carrying more than a 1000 people, including convicts, sailors and marines.
The fleet finally arrived in Botany Bay on 20th January 1788, representing the start of the settlement which became know as Sydney.
For the first 30 years or so life within Sydney was relatively relaxed for the convicts who arrived. There were no jails or barracks in which they were housed so they were generally free to move around as they wished. That’s said they were there to provide labour for the development of the colony and as such life was still relatively tough.
The Hyde Park Barracks were constructed in 1819 to house the convicts coming into the rapidly growing city. It was no longer considered appropriate that they should be housed amongst the free inhabitants, in part due to the increase in petty crime and anti-social behaviour. Some convicts were still able to live reactively freely as part of the benefit system which was put in place to encourage hard work and a respect for law and order. It is thought that as many 50,000 transported convicts passed through its doors between 1819 & 1848.
The last convicts arrived in Sydney in 1840 after which the barracks was used as a jail and als¬o to house orphans arriving from Ireland to escape the potato famine which was having such a devastating effect on the population there.
When the barracks finally closed its doors the last few prisoners were transferred to Cockatoo Island in the harbour which had become the main prison site.
December 1840 saw the last official convict ship, The Eden, off load its cargo in Sydney following the British Governments decision to stop transportation to New South Wales. It was increasingly being seen as an immoral, uneconomic and a counter productive form of punishment. There were stories about people committing petty crimes simply to get sent to the colonies to start a new life having received a letter from a family member telling them of the wonderful life that could be had on the other side of the world.
Increasingly the population of Sydney was becoming embarrassed by their penal origin which was dramatically demonstrated when the convict ship Hashemy arrived in 1849 to be met by a crowd of 5000 demonstrators. The ship was turned away with no convicts being landed.
Transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, continued until 1853 with 1868 seeing the final ship landing convicts in Western Australia.
With the bicentennial of the First Fleet and the founding of the city of Sydney and colony of New South Wales, people have became increasingly interested in their history and convict roots. No longer is their any embarrassment in being related to a felon, it is in fact worn as a badge of honour. If you can show that there is a convict in your family tree then you belong to one of the true founding families of Australia.